What Makes a Good Soldier Want to Join and Stay In the Military?
Cosmetics & Self Interest … or … Leadership & Idealism

February 20, 1999

Comment: #242

Discussion Thread:  #s 238, 239, 240, & 241


[1] Email from an Army Staff Sergeant stationed in Seoul Korea, February 19, 1999. Attached.

[2] Email from Col John Rothrock USAF (Ret), "What Makes a Good Soldier," February 19, 1999. Attached.

[3] Major Brooke H. Janney, USA, "WE CAME HERE TO BE SOLDIERS, SIR," comments on the Chief of Staff's reference to "quitters." [source unknown, but I believe this is a letter originally published in Army Times, but is now an email circulating widely among the officers and enlisted ranks.) Attached.

The courtiers in Versailles on the Potomac are hoping to buy their way out of the mounting recruiting/retention crisis in the Army, Navy, and the Air Force with a strategy that combines lower standards; higher pay rates, increased retirement salaries, and a system of special re-enlistment bonuses/benefits; all packaged together with a slick advertising campaign that appeals to the self-interest rather than self-sacrifice and patriotism, spearheaded by a world-wide speaking tour (political campaign?) led by the Secretary of Defense.

While certain lower-level enlisted ranks genuinely need a pay increase (some are on food stamps), a rising volume of email suggests a growing number of troops—officers and enlisted, active and retired—find this strategy to be personally offensive as well as a prescription for disaster on the battlefield.

In Reference #1, for example, an active duty Army staff sergeant provides a thoughtful analysis of the importance of standards (note his explanation of why a high school diploma is important) and its relation to operating complex, hi-tech equipment. He closes by noting cynically that the Secretary's speaking campaign … "for better pay and benefits within the military is being greeted largely by chuckles by the active force" … because he … "sounds like a politician trying to buy votes. The Republican Congress is adding to the comedy by not wanting a Democratic Administration to get credit for fixing the problem, so they are advocating even more generous benefits. ... The troops are planning on laughing all the way to the bank."

In Reference #2, a retired AF colonel analyzes the nature of military service and warns that appeals to self-interest, like using pay to bribe people into joining and staying in the military, creates a dangerous delusion that can ultimately harm the society making that choice.

Reference #3 is a real blockbuster!! It is an angry but thoughtful analysis of leadership, written by an active duty Army major in response to the Chief of Staff's disparaging reference to people who leave the Army as "quitters." His arguments should be examined very closely and then compared with earlier comments about the growing wedge of mistrust that is separating the senior leaders from the junior officers and enlisted ranks [Comment #s: 126, 129, 138, 142, 155, 186, 207, & 233].

After reading these references, ask yourself three questions:

1. Will a strategy of bribing the troops to join and stay in the military make a dent in the personnel crisis?

2. Will a strategy that lowers standards, and uses a slick PR campaign to recruit people on the basis of self-interest, topped off by a SECDEF speaking tour make a dent in the problems described below and in the referenced comments?

3. Is a mercenary strategy that holds people in such low esteem consistent the value system that produced three years of Armed Forces Day posters that celebrated weapons while ignoring the service, patriotism, and sacrifices of our soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen [for a GIF image of the 1998 poster, see hot link in Comment #237]?

In Versailles on the Potomac, the conventional wisdom would apparently answer these questions:

1. YES,

Before throwing money at this problem, maybe we ought to reinforce or change the conventional wisdom by asking the troops WHY they are voting with their feet. Who knows—armed with thoughtful answers, we might be able to design a solution that fixes the personnel problem at a political and economic price America can afford to pay.

Moreover, a real solution might even have an unexpected side benefit: It might increase morale among Army recruiters, because they would no longer be reduced to calling 16 year old girls in their futile struggle to meet their recruitment quotas (ironically, my daughter, who is only a junior in HS, was called by a recruiter while I was writing this email).

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference 1:

Will Lowering Standards and Increasing Pay Provide Good Soldiers?
Email from an Army Staff Sergeant XX stationed in Seoul, Korea

I enjoyed Colonel Bernard's commentary [Comment #241]. I would like to put in my two cents from the perspective of a REMF, post-Vietnam, all volunteer Army type.

The lowering of standards to get more people in the Army is stupid and ignores the lessons of history that has occurred within the lifetime of the senior military leadership.

The value of a High School diploma is questionable, given the disparity of the quality of education throughout our country. The diploma should not be taken as a measure of an individual's intelligence. It should be taken as a measure of one's SELF DISCIPLINE. In order to get that coveted sheepskin, that individual had to get up in the morning, go to school, produce some type of a measurable product, and then leave school, on something of a repetitive basis for 12 years.

Studies consistently show that non high school grads have more problems with absenteeism, poor work ethics, substance abuse, etc, in both the military and the civilian work place. Because they never developed the habit of getting up in the morning, going to work, and producing something.

I am especially fearful of the trend to "change" the standards to let in more Hispanics as advocated by Secretary of the Army Luis Caldera. My fears are not motivated racism, as some might wish to claim. It is based on the growing technological requirements of being a basic soldier.

I will use the radio as the example that I am most familiar with. The radios of today are no longer flip the switch, adjust the frequency, and talk. The radios of the early 21st century require at least 20 minutes of slow painstaking programming in order to accomplish basic point to point communications. If you want them to frequency hop, go secure, or pass digital data, it requires more work.

When I was first introduced to these wonderful gadgets (and they are an improvement over their predecessors), I kept thinking, these have to be used, at 0300 hrs, in lousy weather, by some teenager, in chemical protective over garments, who probably didn't do too well in High School.

Now plug into that scenario a teen aged, high school dropout, whose primary language is a Western Hemisphere version Spanish. Add to that situation that this individual has a lower standard of self discipline, and may have difficulties communicating with his peers on a daily basis, and you have a recipe for disaster.

COL Bernard has advocated a form of national service to address the manpower shortage in the military. I have mixed feelings about conscription. It may be a generational issue, but it has also been influenced by my exposure to conscripts in both Germany and Korea. Still, I am practical enough to realize it may ultimately be the only solution to our nations recruiting problem.

The campaigning by Secretary Cohen for better pay and benefits within the military is being greeted largely by chuckles by the active force. He sounds like a politician trying to buy votes. The Republican Congress is adding to the comedy by not wanting a Democratic Administration to get credit for fixing the problem, so they are advocating even more generous benefits.

The troops are planning on laughing all the way to the bank.

Seoul, Korea

Reference 2:

"What Makes A Good Soldier?"
eamil from Colonel John Rothrock, USAF (Ret)

I would like to endorse and also to expand a bit upon L/CPL Wright's observation that monetary incentives have very limited potential to "fix" the military's current problem of attracting and retraining high quality people. The military will never be able to compete with the civilian economy (i.e., with either its private or public sectors) in terms of pay combined with attractive working conditions.

By its nature, the military life involves risks and rigors which cannot be measured by money and, therefore, cannot be compensated by it. However, a properly led, organized, and utilized military CAN provide a sense of personal satisfaction and positive commitment that also cannot be measured in monetary terms and which can produce a loyalty, esprit, and resulting desire to "stick with it" that few, if any, civilian pursuits can match.

The greatest policy mistake the Congress and the military's civilian leadership could ever (continue to) make would be to attempt to have the military compete for quality people as just one more "employer" that is having trouble filling "jobs". The subtle but unavoidable and dangerous long-term effect of such an approach is surely to inculcate the American military with an esprit-corroding ethos of individual and institutional self-interest. Such a self-focused ethos, while appropriate to the larger socio-economy, is decidedly inappropriate to the profession of arms in the service of a democracy.

Indeed, history shows not one instance of a society which chose to base military service largely upon appeals to military self-interest and monetary gain that did not eventually somehow fall victim to that choice. The most appropriate metaphor is that of choosing to ride a tiger. You just never need to get there that badly to make it a wise choice.

John E. Rothrock
Colonel, USAF (Ret)

Reference 3:

By Major Brooke H. Janney, USA

I read General Reimer's comments about departing mid-grade officers being "quitters" with great interest and concern. As one of those mid-grade officers who has done and continues to do a great deal of soul searching about today's Army and the future of "my" Army, I find it very distressing that those that elect to leave are viewed as "quitters" by the Chief of Staff of the Army.

That particular choice of words implies an unwillingness to see something through; to do one's part; or a breaking of faith on the part of those who elect to leave or those of us that wrestle with the decision. I would contend that those implications are exactly what many of those departing officers feel the Army has done to them.

By all accounts, my career opportunities and future are bright. So, why do I have doubts?
Who are my peers and I? We are the Lieutenants of the late eighties and early nineties who elected to join the Army at the height of the Reagan defense build-up and entered active federal service at the point of time when our nation's military spending was physically entering service army-wide. We learned our trade from the last of the Vietnam veterans who stayed after the administrative bloodletting of the mid-seventies, many of whom made
personal vows to see that another Vietnam never happened again. We learned from Senior Noncommissioned Officers, who didn't have a college degree and didn't need one to be successful in the Army. We had Captains who had the time, money and freedom of maneuver to train their units; they led and mentored us. We learned that our word was our bond; that bad news never gets better with age; and that failure to prepare our subordinates and ourselves for war was a mortal sin. Sure, there were always too few soldiers, too
little money, and too little time.

There certainly were a lot of administrative burdens that had to be managed. But through it all, preparing for war was our first, last, and most important focus. We talked the talk and walked the walk despite our limits and distractions. We carried that sense of mission and ethic from Panama to Kuwait to Somalia and on to Haiti.

This group of "quitters" were the smaller unit leaders of Desert Storm and Just Cause; the platoon leaders, executive officers, company-level commanders and battalion staff officers in those crucibles that established the reputation of today's Army. We stepped up to the plate when called upon and won the game one hit at a time and one catch at a time. When the brigade and division commanders up in the booth called the play, these "quitters" down in the trenches gave everything they had and made it happen. They kept the faith and removed the ghost of Vietnam from the minds of friends and foes alike.

The officers who have stayed on are diehard soldiers who see the Army as a calling akin to a religious vocation, who love the Army like a wife or sweetheart, and who truly bleed OD green.

However, somewhere during this recent draw-down period, things have begun to change in our beloved Army. With a 300% increase in OPTEMPO, we didn't notice it at first because we were too busy shooting 25 meter targets.

Somewhere in the mid-nineties, we began to sense a change in our Army. It was something bigger than more missions. That simply gave us focus. It was something different from lower funding for training, maintenance, and soldier care. That simply challenged us and made us more efficient, innovative, and determined. It was something different from the fact that our friends from college and those that left during the draw-down earned more money.

We knew coming into this business that we would never be monetarily rich but would instead be enriched by our chosen lifestyle and our accomplishments.

What we began to notice was a subtle change in the atmosphere, culture, and attitudes in our Army. Command has lost its luster for many. We've seen whole groups of battalion and brigade commanders who aren't having fun in command. These battalion and brigade commanders were our company-level commanders, S-3s and XOs in the Gulf and during the early nineties. We see them forced to choose between training and "adminutia" and watch them find that it's now more dangerous to their careers to choose training.

In talking to them, we learn that they now talk less about war-fighting and more about taskings. We hear them talk less about guidance and more about directives. We see them harried, moving from one event to the next without pause, and without time to digest the lessons learned and the time to correct the problems. We perceive a divorce rate in our peer group and in our peer NCOs that seems to be skyrocketing. We talk to our replacements in company-level command (and those Lieutenants we mentored) and hear them talk about micro-management at levels we cannot imagine. We see a whole generation of junior officers who are not trained on training and not given the opportunity or command climate to learn how to train their units. In sum, we see war-fighting marginalized.

This shakes us to the core of our being. We know personally the unforgiving nature of war and the price of failure. We made our nation's enemies pay that price. We fear that we may one day have to write letters to the mothers and wives of American soldiers who died under our command. We knew years ago that those letters may be required but we were sure that we had done everything in our power to prepare those soldiers for the conflict they died for and found solace in that confidence. We are beginning to lose that confidence and find ourselves unwilling to risk writing those letters under those conditions. And the chances of us having to write those letters increases every day.

We see the organizational culture of our beloved Army subtly changing. We see
technology being placed ahead of people. We see units and their leaders that are not the same tight-knit "bands of brothers" that we grew up in. We see leaders focused on something else and we don't know why.

We have, in short, a crisis in confidence. This is the reason for the exodus for so many of us. Those that remain wrestle with that decision regularly.

We see our Army in crisis and fear for its future. We don't want to leave but we don't see a way to fix it and leaving our Army the way it currently stands is unacceptable. Its not pay, its not retirement, and its not the OPTEMPO. To paraphrase President Clinton's 1992 campaign slogan, "It's the command climate, Sir!"